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In 1833 Henry John Stephen Smith, the brilliant Irish
specialist in the theory of numbers and Savilian Professor of
Geometry in Oxford University, died in his scientific prime at
the age of fifty-seven. Oxford invited the aged Sylvester, then
in his seventieth year, to take the vacant chair. Sylvester
accepted, much to the regret of his innumerable friends in
America. But he felt homesick for his native land which had
treated him none too generously; possibly also it gave him a
certain satisfaction to feel that fcthe stone which the builders
rejected, the same is become the head of the corner'.
The amazing old man arrived in Oxford to take up his duties
with a brand-new mathematical theory ('Reciprocals' -
differential invariants) to spring on his advanced students. Any
praise or just recognition always seemed to inspire Sylvester to
outdo himself. Although he had been partly anticipated in his
latest work by the French mathematician Georges Halphen, he
stamped it with his peculiar genius and enlivened it with his
ineffaceable individuality.
The inaugural lecture, delivered on 12 December 1885 at
Oxford when Sylvester was seventy-one, has all the fire and
enthusiasm of his early years, perhaps more, because he now
felt secure and knew that he was recognized at last by that
snobbish world which had fought him. Two extracts will give
some idea of the style of the whole.
The theory I am about to expound, or whose birth I am
about to announce, stands to this ["the great theory of Inva-
riants"] in the relation not of a younger sister, but of a brother,
who, though of later birth, on the principle that the masculine
is more worthy than the feminine, or at all events, according to
the regulations of the Salic law, is entitled to take precedence
over his elder sister, and exercise supreme sway over their
united realms.'
Commenting on the unaccountable absencfe of a term in a
certain algebraic expression he waxes lyric.
*Still, in the case before us, this unexpected absence of a
member of the family, whose appearance might have been
looked for, made an impression on my mind, and even went to
the extent of acting on my emotions, I began to think- of it as a